John Mcewen

A hunter’s eye for nature

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For pure delight you must away to Northampton and see this admirable celebration of the centenary of Denys Watkins-Pitchford (1905–90) — amazingly, the first ever solo show of his pictures. Watkins-Pitchford was born and lived in Northamptonshire; he went abroad only a couple of times but he travelled extensively in Britain. Watkins-Pitchford and BB were one and the same. As an artist he used his own name; as a writer the pseudonym — derived from a heavy shot designed for shooting wild geese.

Through illustration, BB combined his artistic and literary talents. He illustrated 60 books of his own and countless others, including classic fairytales, as well as literally thousands of articles and such incidentals as bookplates, Christmas cards and a set of postage stamps (to be reissued this July to mark his birthday) — much of it, alas, destroyed as ephemera.

BB’s glory years were the 1940s and 1950s. He had later successes, not least in the 1960s with some charming travelogues (The White Road Westwards, etc.) and especially with the adventures of another BB, the belligerent Bill Badger, a badger bargee. BB’s equal love of the countryside and the chase was the very essence of old rural England, but it is a measure of his international acceptance that Bill Badger was particularly popular in Japan.

However, it is to the earlier years that we owe such classics as The Little Grey Men, 1942, his most famous book, an epic journey by ‘the last gnomes in Britain’, which won the premier children’s book award, the Carnegie Medal, and is still on option to Hollywood; Brendon Chase, 1944, England’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and his own favourite, about three teenage schoolboys who run away and live by their wits in a forest — their example causing havoc in post-war boys’ boarding schools; Wild Lone, 1938, which did for foxes what Henry Williamson did for otters; and his first book, The Sportsman’s Bedside Book, 1937, taken to war by many a serviceman as a treasured reminder of home.

This exhibition of 200-odd items manages to touch on the most important aspects of his vast output. There are two rooms of pictures supported by several cases of books and memorabilia, from photograph albums to his protective efforts on behalf of the well named forest-bound purple emperor butterfly.

BB had a rigorous training as an artist, including a spell in Paris, and for several years he taught art at Rugby School. It shows in the assurance of his drawing and technical mastery. Edwin Alexander, Thorburn, Rackham and the Swede Bruno Liljefors were among the artists in his own field he most admired.

Underlying the artistry was a hunter’s eye for nature honed in a childhood that, as the son of an indulgent country rector, was spent at home almost entirely out of doors. BB is in the august tradition of naturalists who were Anglican vicars or the sons of the rural vicarage. And, like many of them, God was revealed for him far more in His creation than through doctrine.

The first wall displays a wide selection of examples in the black-and-white medium he made his own, scraperboard — where a drawing is incised on china-clay-coated card. Until BB made it respectable, scraperboard was largely confined to advertising. It is in scraperboard that he is at his poetic best, achieving what a reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune described as ‘moonlit witchery’.

BB was a hunter in the archaic and instinctual sense, at one with the fox and the hawk. He shot and fished largely for the pot and abhorred aimless slaughter. A companionable day’s covert shooting was fine by him and he revered the tradition and lore of the organised hunt, but his true love was to be alone with only a faithful retriever for company — working a Northamptonshire hedge for a wily old cock pheasant but most of all wildfowling by the sea at dawn and sunset, and fishing; especially the nocturnal sport of carp fishing, which (as a presentation salver shows) he more or less invented. It is at these secret hours that the hunter comes closer than anyone to his fellow creatures, for what twitcher or even dedicated scientist would crouch in a marsh at crack of dawn in the worst winter weather; or pass the length of a summer night by a pool in the depths of a forest?

At Northampton, the many oils are mostly from his old age, when his sight was failing and his hand less sure. They seem crude beside his smaller work, but seen from a distance one marvels at how they catch the fleeting light, how exactly they render the poise of his favourite gold- and bullfinches or the flight of geese or duck.

BB prefaced all his books with an anonymous epitaph: ‘The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power, the shape of things, their colours, lights, and shades; these I saw. Look ye also while life lasts.’

Despite the ravages time had wrought on the pastoral England to which he is the last great witness, he still wanted to live another 200 years, so glorious did he find the natural world.

The BB Society: Bryan Holden, 8 Park Road, Solihull, West Midlands B19 3SU; 0121 704 1002; email: